| February 23, 2013 | Comments (0)



Painted by John Singer Sargent when she was 29 years old.


There’s an old saying – I’m not sure where  it comes from although it sounds vaguely Shakespearean – that “Everybody loves  a Lord.” The validity of this little shibboleth seems to be holding its own in our distinctly egalitarian 21st century. Proletarian tabloids adoringly  follow Kate and William’s every move and the wildly popular third season of “Downton Abbey” has just concluded with reports in the American media that there is a stampede in the US labor market for English servants, particularly of the butler and lady’s maid variety.

Closer to home, an old friend and fellow journalist has just penned a paean to the late Matthew Crawley, who until his untimely death in a car accident in the final minutes of this season’s last episode, was the putative heir to Downton Abbey, the Yorkshire estate where this  many-facetted tale unfolds, each segment bringing us spine-tingling plot twists, from an evilly-conceived miscarriage to a homosexual rape attempt, all done, mind you, “in the English way”, so as not to disturb His Lordship or frighten the horses. In her elegant elegy, my friend extolls the virtues of the true “gentleman” whom she felt Crawley epitomized, bemoaning the vanished virtues of that now lost world. (Let us overlook Matthew’s cad-like dumping of Lady Edith for her more comely and fetchingly wild-natured sister, Lady Mary.)

With so much  buzz of aristocray in the air, I have begun to hear the rattle of a skeleton in my family closet. That skeleton is my cousin (daughter of my great-grandmother’s sister), Nancy Langhorne, who later became Lady Astor.

Cousin Nancy’s story is an interesting one. From shabby-genteel Danville, Virginia, poor as a country church-mouse, but beautiful and very clever, she went to England and did the opposite of the other American ladies – the so-called Dollar Duchesses  who landed in Britain with tons of money seeking a titled English gentleman. She managed to snare one of the England’s richest titled noblemen, Viscount Waldorf Astor, living a life that was both outrageous and admirable.

Eligible American women  have,  to this day, been a sought-after commodity in the English establishment. Lions of British politics such as Churchill and MacMillan had American mothers;  Labour party leader, Lord Anthony Wedgwood Benn, 2d Viscount Stansgate (who later “democratized” himself into Tony Benn) has a Yankee spouse.  In addition to  the welcome American bucks they bring to ease the load of paying those pesky, high British taxes,  marital liaisons with  well-heeled American females are popular with high-born Brits since women from across The Pond are seen as possessing  a certain daring and pizzazz that fits in well with the free-for-all atmosphere of British politics, one of the rare areas of English life, beside the screaming tabloids, where maddening restraint and reserve are not the ruling  behavioral standard. Although they wouldn’t dare act that way themselves, a “what the hell, tell-it-like-it is”  attitude seems to be much admired by the posh set in London.

And Nancy Astor was, if anything, “a tell-it-like-it- is” lady. As the first female member of the British House of Commons – she was elected and served from Plymouth for twenty-five years until 1945 – she threw whoppers left and right in her public pronouncements. Asked in Parliament by Winston Churchill what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball, the Prohibitionist Astor replied, “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister !”  When the going got tough as it often did in British politics, Lady Astor bared her knuckles, saying, “I’m a Virginian. We shoot to kill !”

Leader of the glittering Cliveden Set, named after the Astor’s palatial country seat, Cousin Nancy presided over a coterie of  influence and high culture that included George Bernard Shaw and Maurice Collis. Later her world stumbled into controversy when it appeared that she  supported appeasing  Nazi Germany.  But who didn’t in those confused times ? She also made a trip (with Shaw) to the Soviet Union and attempted to corner Stalin with the question , “Why did you kill all those people?”

To the end, an unrepentant Southerner and, above all, a Virginian – she was buried wrapped in a Confederate flag – Cousin Nancy may have been outrageous and, at times, poltically incorrect, but her influence on feminism and women’s liberation was legendary, if unrecognized.

Whether Downton or Cliveden, fictitious or real life,  characters like Matthew and Cousin Nancy will never cease to fascinate, and in their own quaint way, surrounded by clipped lawns and servants,  maybe even inspire us.

Well, on second thought, these high-fallutin’ goings-on wouldn’t impress everybody; my plain-talking Mother for one.  When she heard the “gentry” nattering about those grand ole times down on the plantation and how pretty Miz Nancy looked at the ball, she would roll her eyes and in her inimitable New Orleans accent  inform us, ” Darlin’, you know what  all that fancy stuff and a dime will get ya ? A phone call !” RIP, Big Mama. Good thing you and Cousin Nancy never met cuz for sure the fur would fly if ya had.




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